Media Briefings

TWEETING ECONOMISTS ARE LESS EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATORS THAN SCIENTISTS

  • Published Date: March 2018

When using Twitter, both economists and natural scientists communicate mostly with people outside their profession, but economists tweet less, mention fewer people and have fewer conversations with strangers than a comparable group of experts in the sciences. That is the central finding of research by Marina Della Giusta and colleagues, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Sussex in Brighton in March 2018.

Their study also finds that economists use less accessible language with words that are more complex and more abbreviations. What’s more, their tone is more distant, less personal and less inclusive than that used by scientists.

The researchers reached these conclusions gathering data on tens of thousands of tweets from the Twitter accounts of both the top 25 economists and 25 scientists as identified by IDEAS and sciencemag. The top three economists are Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Erik Brynjolfsson; the top three scientists are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins.

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2016 has been declared the year of post-truth politics, the year in which appeals to emotions (pathos) superseded the significance of factual evidence-based information (logos), affecting people’s constructions and interpretations of events. This has been accompanied by the growing prominence of political ‘alt’ movements (such as UKIP, alt right) and their aggressive, provocative and populist narratives, and ‘fake news’ leading to political shock events such as Brexit and the Trump election.

The relatively low traction of economists in these public debates has been and continues to be an important issue: does the public not trust economists? Do they not understand what economists do and how they work? Is their work misrepresented in the media? And how do economists themselves interact with public opinion?

This study focuses specifically on Twitter, as social text-based media sites are key tools in the dissemination of both information and populist rhetoric, which makes the ability of experts to engage fruitfully with the public in these networks and their analysis more important than ever.

Using both network and language analysis, the study finds that although both groups communicate mostly with people outside their profession, economists tweet less, mention fewer people and have fewer Twitter conversations with strangers than a comparable group of experts in the sciences.

Economists also use less accessible language with words that are more complex and more abbreviations, and importantly their tone is more distant, less personal and less inclusive than that used by scientists.

The researchers reached these conclusions gathering data from the Twitter accounts of both the top 25 economists and 25 scientists as identified by IDEAS and sciencemag. The top three economists are Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Erik Brynjolfsson; the top three scientists: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins.

The researchers selected scientists specifically to understand whether economists engage less or less effectively than experts in fields characterised by a high degree of specialism and complexity, an often-heard justification for the poor understanding of what economists do by the public (https://economicsnetwork.ac.uk/news/understanding_econ).

The study collected 64,121 tweets from the economists and 63,472 from the scientists, selecting the last 3,240 tweets from each person on the list (economists' tweets ranged from 02/11/2009 to 06/04/2017, the scientists' tweets from 09/12/2008 to 13/04/2017). In terms of composition of both the sample and the ensuing networks, the study confirms what we already know about lack of diversity in the profession (Bayer and Rouse, 2016).

The language analysis of differences in register (a higher register is generally less accessible and thus more distanced) finds that economists use a higher number of complex words, specific names and abbreviations than scientists.

Furthermore, differences in pronoun use (which relate to a greater degree of involvement with the reader) show that highly inclusive pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘our’ are used up to twice as often by scientists compared with economists.

This lends support to the ‘superiority of economists’ argument presented by Fourcade, Ollion and Algan in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2015, who link higher assertiveness and sense of superiority displayed by economists to higher remunerations, insularity and hierarchy than in the other social sciences.

This, the researchers conclude, feeds into both poor understanding and traction of economics with the general public, and continuing trends in (lack of) diversity, that are related to both implicit attitudes and institutional practices and are currently the focus of several initiatives at the Royal Economic Society, the European Economic Association and the American Economic Association.

ENDS


‘Economists and Scientists in Twitter: A Tale of Two Styles?’
Marina Della Giusta, Sylvia Jaworska and Danica Vukadinovic Greetham
University of Reading

Contact
Marina Della Giusta
Email: m.dellagiusta@rdg.ac.uk
Twitter: @mardelgiu
Mob: +44 7575061915